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A New Yellow Vest Movement in Germany?

A new fuel tax last November sent the French into the streets wearing yellow vests, but so far, Germany doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. Berlin has published proposals for meeting EU climate change reduction goals, and among them are a fuel tax starting in 2023, a speed limit on the Autobahn, lifting Germany’s exemption on taxes for diesel fuel cars, and quotas for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Potential flash points abound. The Autobahn is about the only place that the normally reserved Germans can let loose, not to mention that studies on how much carbon emissions will be cut by enforcing a speed limit are fairly unimpressive and inconclusive. As for electric vehicle quotas, one can only imagine a car shopper pointing at the shiny new BMW: “wunderbar!” only to be met with a resigned sigh from the salesperson: “Actually sir, may I…strongly…‘suggest’ you buy that shoddy, overpriced hybrid over there?”

Germany’s automakers haven’t exactly jumped at the chance to go hybrid or electric, even though the federal republic has pumped billions of Euros into encouraging such innovation. Although Mercedes and other German automakers are getting in on the action, their launches have not gone perfectly. Proponents of electric car quotas say Germany has relied on diesel as a fix-all solution whose time has now run out, but opponents point out that good technology should speak for itself. Fusing climate change fighting initiatives and pricier renewable energy with populism and popular support for environmental protection continues to be a hard sell even in liberal Europe. It may also prove difficult in America, although the appeal of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should not be underestimated.

Still, when it comes to the way they approach these issues, the Davos set just can’t seem to get the message. The commission that made the suggestions for the German government has an appropriately vague and Orwellian name: the National Platform on the Future of Mobility. They say their suggestions are just early brainstorming and have been inappropriately hyped by German media. But the fact is that Germany’s government has an incentive to enact burdensome regulations, considering it may be hit with tough penalties if it doesn’t start significantly cutting carbon emissions. Germany’s auto sales have risen steadily over the years and carbon emissions from vehicles are up. Man-made climate change is undoubtedly a serious problem, but slapping German consumers and manufacturers with the kinds of nickel-and-diming maneuvers that spurred the French into setting up barricades is probably not the way to go about it.

Last year, the German government rebuffed French President Emmanuel Macron’s request that it levy additional carbon taxes on businesses, although it did agree to cut down transport sector emissions by 40 percent (by way of some unclear methods). As for German consumers, they already pay very high taxes—especially on fuel. Germans currently pay an extra $2.80 per gallon in fuel taxes on regular unleaded gas, as well as a 19 percent value added tax levied on the price of the fuel and on the fuel tax itself (a tax taxing a tax).

Attaching high extra taxes to fuel purchases has been a windfall for Germany’s government, and one might assume that the money would go toward environmental protection measures. But that’s not true: it mainly funds the general federal piggybank. The UK, Germany, and France have the highest fuel taxes in the world, including on diesel, which is crucial to truckers and industry. Meanwhile, China, though far from a model, has no fuel tax on gas or diesel. Although Germans enjoy top-notch social services, they do not come cheap. In fact, Germany has the second largest tax burden in the entire world.

Davos this year will meet explicitly to plan a “global society” of what they call “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” in order to tackle various concerns, including climate change. This approach, and that of the German commission, comes from the kind of establishment neoliberal mentality that shames citizens about the dire threat of climate change in moralizing ways while flying to conferences in private jets to eat canapés and caviar and feel important. These globally minded individuals and world leaders need armies of scantily housed laborers and ready-made snacks to discuss their brilliant ideas that inevitably make the lives of working-class people even tougher.

Carbon taxes, carbon pricing, fuel taxes, Autobahn speed limits, stern messages from Emmanuel Macron, and “global” discussions (China and India had other plans) aren’t going to make a dent in climate change. Barring a fundamental reorganization of significant state subsidization for renewable energy, real compromises, and agreements with non-Western countries to reduce emissions and pollution, green policy will remain—unfortunately—mostly associated with self-righteousness and self-importance. A mindset in which production and “progress” are more important than human beings and families will not be changed by fancy white papers or intrusive bureaucracy. Although the proposed German changes are unlikely to be implemented, Germany remains a good example of how the modern industrial economy still clashes on a basic level with the desire for a healthier relationship with nature. Despite heavy regulation, taxes, and public consciousness of environmental practices already in place (German recycling is very well organized), Germany remains a significant emissions producer simply on account of its industries, commuters, and technology.

Policies ostensibly aimed at helping the environment mainly serve to alienate ordinary citizens who might otherwise be more sympathetic to solving the problems at hand. Entire sectors of the population tune out as soon as they draw a link in their heads between climate change and a certain unctuous mindset. As Addison Del Mastro wrote here at TAC, climate change skepticism is bolstered by conservatives who perceive the issue as a golden goose for liberal political activism and legislation. This need not be the case, in Germany or in America, where even young Republicans tend to be supportive of pro-environment measures. Protecting the earth and putting families above profits is only common sense, especially for conservatives.

However, burdensome government regulations, besieging consumers at the pumps, and ticketing drivers on the road is not going to do the trick. That will only create resentment and greaten the divide between people and their leaders, which needs to be at least partially bridged if we’re going to tackle environmental problems in the first place.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others.  You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.

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